Last year I had the opportunity to travel to the UK for work. I made a couple of different trips, and for the first month my work put me up in a flat and paid for every meal. It was a great opportunity to learn what my habits would be like if money was less of a factor in my decisions. Would I order the expensive steak every night? Would I ever tire of the Market Choice fish or the Chef’s Special?
A Frugal Family
For background: I grew up in a coupon-friendly family. We had two coupon books– one would live in the house, and the other would live in the car. We never went out to eat without a coupon from one of those books. Between the four of us, our bill averaged $20. We would split two entrées, and if we were out for pizza we might even order one Coke to share. I was thirteen-years-old the first time I ordered my own entrée. I was at a friend’s birthday party and watched in awe as each person got their own dish. With no forks dipping in to try my salad, I ended up with half of my plate left over.
The Travel Policy
On this work trip, I could spend $15 on breakfast, $20 for lunch, and $40 for dinner, a total of $75 or £58. Some companies provide a ‘per diem’ where you get a lump sum to spend each day and you get to keep whatever you don’t spend. Mine did not work like that; instead, the allowance reset each day and you did not get to keep what you did not spend. If you underspent on groceries one day, you could not have a fabulous feast the next.
Here I was with this unique opportunity to see if my habits would change at all if money was removed from my decision making. By habit, my eyes would track to the least expensive thing on the menu, and it took some time getting used to the idea that I could now afford to get anything I wanted.
The Daily Routine
For breakfast, I usually made eggs, beans, and toast. I would grab a cappuccino every morning on the way to the train. Then for lunch I would head over to a local café for a sandwich (otherwise known as a toastie). After work, I would take the train home, rest for a bit, then get ready to go out for dinner. I tried out every restaurant in town. There were three Indian restaurants, seven different pubs, six Italian restaurants, three French restaurants, two pizza places, one Lebanese kitchen, and a sushi spot. The first week I ate with my team, but after they all flew home I would walk to a restaurant with my trusty Kindle and ask for a table for one. Although eating alone took some getting used to, I explored menu items I would never usually order and savored my quiet time reading.
The Uncomfortable Truth
According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, you eat 200 calories more per meal eating out compared to eating at home. Gary Kuntz, former chef at the four-star restaurant Lespinasse, told the New York Post, “If you knew how much butter goes into a risotto dish, you’d probably never eat it again. And puff pastry! It’s almost equal amounts of butter and flour.”
Sugar, salt, and butter are added in appalling amounts– measures I would never dare to add at home. My friend used to be famous for his delicious homemade cookies, but when I realized that they took two sticks of butter to make, I struggled to eat any of them. Another time we made homemade jam and the piles and piles of sugar put me off from eating jam for the rest of the year. Similarly, learning the unhealthy methods of restaurant cooking was a wake-up call.
A study published by JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed the meals served at 26 chain sit-down restaurants in Canada. They found that a single meal of breakfast, lunch, or dinner constituted almost a full day’s worth of calories, fat, and sodium. Although I did not know the data at the time, I could tell that eating out every day did not feel very healthy.
I would try to counter this by ordering small: a side salad and an appetizer for my dinner. Before I started eating, I would portion out the amount I wanted to eat and left the rest to take home. Luckily my commute involved a lot of walking.
One of the most surprising things was what I didn’t want. I figured that with a budget double what my family usually spent for dinner, I would splash out for an appetizer, that expensive menu item, a drink, and maybe even a dessert. However, when it was an option– I didn’t want it. If I got an appetizer I would be too full for a main course. I don’t like to drink anything other than water (although England did convert me into a tea drinker). By the time the dessert menu landed on the table, I was ready to head home.
As for the main course– it was fun to order the seafood linguine over the plain marinara. For a little more money, I got to explore a few options I might not have ordered otherwise. However, it slowly dawned on me that “premium” meals did not add much more value for me than their cheaper counterparts. I didn’t want to eat a steak every night (surprise!) and sometimes I preferred a cheeky Nando’s to a fancy sit down. Finally, the novelty of eating out fizzled out. What used to be a once-in-a-while treat was now just an everyday expectation. I started to shift to making my own food at home to save time and to eat fresher and healthier.
Budgetless Grocery Shopping
I opted for cooking more at home with quality ingredients. When I was living in England on my own dime, I spent an average of $146 (£114) per month on groceries. When work footed the bill, I could spend up to $75 (£58), or half my monthly budget in one day. This meant that my grocery options were nearly limitless. If I wanted to buy my favorite brand of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (Sofa So Good: caramel ice cream with a salted caramel swirl, chocolate brownies, and chocolate cookies) for triple the price than I would normally pay, it could go in the cart. I could buy nice cuts of meat, the best cheeses, and all the dark chocolate Digestive biscuits my heart could desire. Sales schmales, who needs them?!
Yet after just a couple trips to the store, I had enough treats to last me the rest of the month. I’ll be honest, it takes me two weeks to eat one chocolate bar. I nibble on a single square, leave it in the drawer for when a craving hits in a couple days, and save the rest for later. Aside from treats, my grocery trips did not look much different as I generally cook up lots of veggies and rice. Even with a limitless budget, I found myself buying similar foods and spending similar amounts.
My expectation was that a high food allowance would make me happier. I would worry less about cost or value and simply order what I want. It turns out that when I stripped away any need to be frugal, my satisfaction with eating out stayed the same. This demonstrates the phenomenal ability of the human mind to quickly adapt to a situation. We tend to think that more money, fame, or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will make us happier, but we generally return to the same baseline of happiness. This proved to me that I was never living a ‘deprived’ lifestyle with my inherent frugality. Besides the tragedy of forgoing a couple of fancy cheeses and that magical orange-fizzy drink from M&S, I do not need an astronomical budget to buy the foods to keep me happy and healthy.